11 June 2020
Let There Be Light
In the American darkness.
By Robert Kilconner
In the story The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Holmes explains to Watson why in his view the countryside presents a more dreadful record of sin than the town:
“The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”
To say that no one is the wiser about the oppression of black communities in America would be an exaggeration, but many of the ruling class seem to have been blind to the issue, or at least able to persuade themselves that it is much exaggerated, ignoring the signs which should long ago have spurred them into action. The result is a dark area in which deeds could be done and bigotry practised out of the sight of Washington and opinion formers. It is in that darkness that racism and oppression have flourished.
Now, all that is beginning to change. Light is being let in. You will hear people say that the roots of the present wave of unrest lie in the misdeeds of Amy Cooper or the murder of George Floyd. Those may indeed be the proximate causes but to leave it there misses the important point. These and other incidents have only given rise to a reaction because they were carried out in open sight and not in the dark at all, thanks to the fact that everyone now carries a phone, and with that phone the ability to record events and to publish their recordings. No longer can events and attitudes be hidden: they are on video. No longer can the politicians pretend that problems are minor: incontrovertible proof of the opposite can be found on the internet, available for all to see.
In 1913 a great American judge, Louis Brandeis, famously wrote in the magazine Harper’s Weekly that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants“ but his pithy aphorism is a short form for a more explicit proposition “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” Quite so, and now the combination of phone cameras and social media is letting the light shine in on attitudes and actions which have flourished in the darkness of ignorance, and pretended ignorance, by those who should have done something about it all.
In the next few weeks we will see lots of running around: police forces disbanded; policemen prosecuted; politicians denounced; and we will hear speeches from and read articles by many public figures in the US and elsewhere condemning what has occurred and, in due course, claiming credit for themselves as having fought oppression and helped to turn the tide. But in fact the real reason why the oppression of racial minorities by the police and public officials will disappear, as it will, will be an inexorable logic. Modern technology is casting light into the dark places and those evil things which depended on darkness will die under that light and the scrutiny which it brings in its wake.